An Insider's Look at Halloween Horror Nights 2005

A year-long planning process helps make Universal Orlando's annual scarefest one of the nation's most popular Halloween events.

Written by Joe Lane
Published: October 19, 2005 at 10:55 AM

So just who is the storyteller behind Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights?

T.J. Mannarino is Director of Entertainment, Art and Design for Universal Creative and one of the head designers for the 15th installment of Universal Orlando's annual Halloween bash. I had an opportunity to talk with Mannarino about the creative process involved in building one of the nation's most popular Halloween events from the ground up.

The design process behind HHN begins with a basic concept, Mannarino said. He works with other Universal artists to discuss the potential extensions to concept.

"Every guest, in our opinion, has a different type of 'fear threshold,'" Mannarino said. "To design an event that has flexibility and interactive-ness, you really try to hit every guest at their ultimate."

Around February, the team shifts into the design development stage, where the ideas become clear and the houses are planned. This process includes determining the scenes and their progression, plus where special effects and Scareactors are placed within each house. By mid-April, the design team is creating the design packages for each house. In May, the production team begins work on set pieces, costumes, signage and the other physical elements that make up the event. This process lasts for the rest of the summer, leading up to the grand opening in early October.

The development continues during event nights, as the design team watches to see how park guests react to each house.

"Because this is a product that tends to react to with the guests from a highly interactive type of environment, we're out there really seeing how does it affect the guest," Mannarino said.

Mannarino has worked at Universal Orlando for 10 years. He first joined the crew in 1996 as the Special Effects and Scenic Designer and has worked on the Halloween event ever since.

"The thing that I've come to really get excited about is that it's a unique experience and every year we strive to change it for our guests," Mannarino said.

This year's theme is “Tales of Terror.” And the mascot is The Storyteller, a grandmotherly figure who, much like previous year's icons, has a twisted streak to her.

"The Storyteller is almost like the innocent sweet bait that lures you into this strange world," said Mannarino. "It's like an alternate reality that exists out there that your unaware of until she makes you aware of it."

That alternate reality is called Terra Cruentus, a land ruled by an evil queen with a constant demand for human blood: blood used for sacrificial rights, the tempering of weapons and other gory, gruesome and grotesque practices. Each of the six themed lands in Islands of Adventure represents a different part of the kingdom. For example, Marvel Superhero Island becomes Iron Bone Gorge, where packs of bikers make runs between the different lands, transporting blood, iron, or weapons.

Of course, The Storyteller isn't just a spooky character to slap in commercials, but a symbolic gateway into this nightmare world.

"And as we like to say," Mannarino continued, "Once you're aware of this world, the world is aware of you."

Unlike last year's Horror Nights event, which took place both Universal Orlando parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, this year's event is being held solely at IOA. Some visitors have complained about the decision to restrict the event to one park.

"A big component was taking this whole story and wrapping it into a single theme that we felt Islands of Adventure was better suited."

Mannarino mentioned how Islands of Adventure, with its twisting roads and hidden nooks, is the perfect place to set up scares and really play on the rugged theme of Terra Cruentus.

"The big issue is how we get the guest to have the best experience," Mannarino said.

"We have a great legacy with the horror classics to kind of uphold. That is our mantra, to make sure we do great justice to the history of Universal."

* * *

For more information on Halloween Horror Nights 15 at Universal Orlando, including tickets and discounts for Florida residents, visit Universal's official website at Adventurous individuals can click on the book on the top right of the Horror Nights homepage to learn more about the extensive back story of Terra Cruentus, but be warned: some portions of the site are not for the faint of heart.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive